Thursday, December 25, 2014

Home Alone, Gifts Abroad

By David Swatling           

Last week I did one of those ubiquitous Internet quizzes: “Which Christmas Movie Character Are You?” I was impressed when it pegged me as Kevin McCallister, the boy in Home Alone. “No one special thing defines Christmas for you; you enjoy the whole package.” My first Christmas as a published author began back in August when I opened the box full of books with my name on the cover. The look of wonder and joy on my face was not unlike Kevin’s when his Mom walks through the door at the end of the film. 

This holiday season really started for me last month at Iceland Noir, a weekend celebration of crime fiction. I attended the inaugural festival last year after meeting Icelandic author Yrsa Sigudardottir at Bouchercon in Albany. “We’re almost neighbors,” I joked, mentioning I lived in Amsterdam. “Then you should come to Reykjavik,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye. Although my debut psychological thriller would not be published until the following year, I had a feeling Iceland might be an interesting place to begin exploring interest on the European side of the pond.    
What’s not to love about a country with a holiday tradition of giving books as gifts? There’s even an Icelandic word for it: Jolabokaflod, which translates literally as Christmas book flood. Crime novels are extremely popular, perhaps because the crime rate is so low – or because the winter nights are so long. Curling up in front of the fire on Christmas Eve with a new thriller is a national pastime. Iceland Noir may be a small festival, but great gifts often come in small packages. 

Don’t get me wrong. Clearly, larger events like ThrillerFest are invaluable. Attending in 2012, a rough first draft tucked anxiously under my arm, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning – even as I learned how much I still needed to learn. Without plunging into the deep end, pitching to agents and experiencing the full four days of magic and mayhem, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Certainly not a member of the 2014-15 ITW Debut Authors Class!  

But events in a more intimate setting make it easy to connect with other authors, bloggers, and the all-important readers. Rather than racing from one panel to another, there’s more time to continue discussions, ask specific questions, or compare notes on the creative process. Not only was I on a New Blood panel of debut authors, I also had the honor of reading with local authors of the Icelandic Crime Syndicate in a packed nightclub. And was thrilled to have my book accepted by the Reykjavik City Library. 

Last year Yrsa gave me a copy of her bone-chilling thriller I Remember You. This year I gave her a gift of Calvin’s Head. Whether she reads it or not on Christmas Eve, I’m delighted to add an Icelandic tradition to my own home alone holidays.  

For more information about Iceland Noir:

David Swatling grew up in rural New York, studied theatre, and moved to Amsterdam in 1985. He produced arts & culture documentaries for Radio Netherlands and is three-time winner of the NLGJA Excellence in Journalism Award, among other international honors. His suspense novel Calvin’s Head is published by Bold Strokes Books. His short story “Poet’s Walk” appeared in the inaugural issue of Chase the Moon. He writes about arts and LGBTQ issues at: 
Life in Amsterdam isn’t all windmills and tulips when you’re homeless. Jason Dekker lives in a jeep with his dog, Calvin, on the outskirts of the city. A thesis on Van Gogh brought him to the Netherlands and the love of Dutch artist Willy Hart convinced him to stay. But Willy is gone and Dekker is on the brink of a total meltdown. On a sunny summer morning in the park, Calvin sniffs out the victim of a grisly murder. Dekker sees the opportunity for a risky strategy that might solve their problems. Unfortunately, it puts them directly in the sights of the calculating stone-cold killer, Gadget. Their paths are destined to collide, but nothing goes according to plan when they end up together in an attic sex-dungeon. Identities shift and events careen out of control, much to the bewilderment of one ever-watchful canine. Oscar Wilde wrote that each man kills the thing he loves. He didn’t mean it literally. Or did he? 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Level of Lessons Learned

By S. L. Ellis

As I began the registration for ThrillerFest X, I wondered if I really needed to attend another conference or workshop. As it stands, it would take both hands and the removal of a stiletto to count the number I've attended over the past ten years. Wouldn't my time be better spent writing?

For me, workshops and conferences are rated on effectiveness. If a lesson was learned while attending, I considered them effective. That said, based on this experience, these events can be assigned to one of three levels which are described below.

The Basement
This writer's workshop or conference relies on a key framework: if you can fake it, you can make it. Here, the writer's ego is given free rein and the sessions evolve into taking turns reading your work aloud. This is followed by a round of instructor's praise. As attendee slash audience, you'll realize the cost of shoddy editing, clearly understand the meaning of purple prose, and learn a new definition of kill your darlings. When it's your turn to read, you'll falter, and then create an exculpation so fully developed it has sub plots based on Greek mythology.

The Attic
A workshop of great substance; likely to have a profound effect on survival, or well-being. These are usually held in a cozy and tranquil gather-around-the-fireplace environment. You'll work on plotting—a skill you'll need in order to crawl into the cubbyhole considered your private writing space and bedroom. You'll learn to edit when you discover you're required to take your turn in kitchen chores. Even feeding the table scraps to the goat tethered next to the backdoor won't deter you from admiring the prize winning and erudite workshop leader. You'll be given story prompts daily in unique methods such as discovering surprises left in your bedding by an untrained puppy. Your imagination will grow with every instance of scurrying and scratching noise coming nightly from the corners of your assigned cubbyhole.

The Main Story
This workshop and conference is information based through sharing, discussing, and revising. All elements of writing are studied and practiced. The attendees are coached and mentored with the intention of elevating skill levels. Conference panel sessions are intended to be useful and cover career-related topics. Egos are not obviously displayed or allowed to overtake a session. The environment is one of fun and enthusiasm. There are no goats or untrained puppies in this level.

By attending conferences and workshops at all levels, I've had the privilege of meeting some wonderfully talented and giving authors. Although they didn't know me from a Bronte, these authors taught me things about writing I couldn't have learned in any other way.

Through author-led workshops, through casual conversation during a break between conference sessions, and through the guidance of fellow attendees, I've learned to grow a thick-skin, value a critique over a compliment, pitch my work with a modicum of confidence, conquer the fear of ridicule or rejection, and believe in myself and my writing. Most importantly, I've learned if you're receptive, there is always another lesson to learn.

I'm looking forward to meeting another group of authors in July of next year.

Wait. Does anyone know the Grand Hyatt's pet policy?

Cassie Cruise wants her life back as a kick-ass P.I. Trouble is, she has zero credibility since bungling a case on reality TV. After a public tantrum, she slinks off to bury her head in the sandy beaches of Southwest Florida. Just as she starts over as the owner of The Big Prick Tattoo Shop, a body is discovered in the trunk of her burning car. Cassie's aware there are those who'd get in line for their turn to torch her car. But murder?
You don't have to like her, but you damn well better respect her. And get out of her way—this is one case she intends to solve, with or without an audience.

S.L. Ellis came from a small town in Michigan. After a few decades of winter, Ellis was ready for a fresh start. A move to Florida and a few days on the beach improved her disposition a hundred-fold, and it was here that writing became more than a thought. Classes were taken, workshops worked, and a few books written. Ellis’s short story "A Brush With Death" was published in Vol. 12 DARK TALES, a UK magazine and reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno, DARK SCRIBE MAGAZINE Anthology Reviews: “A Brush with Death is a solid, at times poignant, chiller in which a dying woman—who knows death well after a lifetime of obsession—makes a deal with the Grim Reaper. Ellis’s keen observations on aging and death are spot-on.” Also, her short story "If the Shoe Fits" was accepted for publication in HARDLUCK STORIES for its final issue. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and ITW. LANE CHANGES, a P.I. Cassie Cruise Novel, is Ellis’s debut novel. It's release date is December 20, 2014.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Editing of Murder at the Book Group

 by Maggie King

Writing is rewriting … is it ever! I started cutting a swath through Murder at the Book Group long before I let anyone beyond my circle of friends and local writers see my manuscript. I got 108,000 words down to 102,000, kicking and screaming all the way. But cozy mysteries, especially ones penned by new authors, were expected to hover around 92,000 words.

Yikes! Ten thousand words … what more could I cut? There was no question about it, I had to be ruthless. I enlisted my even more ruthless friend Marcia to help. Between us we reached the goal of 92,000. It wasn’t even that hard once I donned my ruthless hat. I killed darlings by the dozens (“Kill your darlings” is an expression attributed to William Faulkner and repeated constantly by writing professionals ever since).

Two characters had significant scenes that got whittled down to bit parts; one character was nasty as all get out but as a bit player became quite pleasant. She’ll be a recurring character throughout the series.

When my editor, Nancy (not her real name), came on the scene, she loved Murder at the Book Group. Loved it. Still, she had a few suggestions.

Nancy: “I’d like to work on the snarky tone a little more here. I think it’s fine for other people in the book group to be unsympathetic, negative or petty, but our heroine should be the nice one in the group, the one we root for. Many times she comments on her friends’ appearances or makes snarky asides about their lives that come off as too mean.”

Me: Some of that snark was too good to cut but Nancy gave me a way to keep it … I just gave it to the other characters. And my heroine Hazel Rose came up smelling like, well, a rose!

Nancy: “Let’s play up the romance a bit more.”

Me: Great suggestion. After all, when Hazel isn’t hunting down killers she’s an aspiring writer of Baby Boomer romances. So I set Hazel and her inamorato on a more romantic course than before. After all, she needs inspiration for her writing.

Nancy advised me to ditch my swear words. I pointed out that I was trying for realism—people swear, some a little, some a lot, some only when “necessary.” We’ve all known colorful folks who liberally season their conversations with a salty vocabulary. But Nancy said that my story was a cozy and that cozy readers don’t like swearing. And then there was all that sex …

Murder at the Book Group does fit into the cozy mystery genre in that Hazel Rose is an amateur detective. But I consider it a dark cozy. The sex I write about occurs off stage (off page?) and is all talk—remembered sex, reported sex, observed sex, hoped-for sex.

But Nancy maintained that sex and swearing were over the top. And I do want to cultivate loyal and enthusiastic readers who I expect, if given the choice, would pick sex over blue language. So I kept the sex, ditched the cursing, and came up with euphemisms that didn’t dilute the dialog of my more colorful characters. I even got to keep the “okay” swear words.

There was more: “The ending is good, but it needs some work …” “So and so needs more motivation to do such and such …” “This one needs to show more emotion.”

With Nancy’s help Murder at the Book Group blossomed into a fabulous story and Hazel Rose into an appealing heroine (IMHO).

Have the guidelines of your genre restricted or liberated your writing? Have you ever had to cut a massive opus to a more manageable size? What did you do with your outtakes?  What process did you use?

One night at a book group in Richmond, Virginia, mystery author Carlene Arness dies after drinking cyanide-spiked tea. Despite a suicide note, Carlene’s friend Hazel Rose is skeptical. Suicide doesn’t fit with what she knows of Carlene who is, incidentally, Hazel’s ex-husband’s current wife. Did Carlene die by her own hand or someone else’s? Who had a motive? When Hazel seeks answers to these questions she finds no shortage of motives as she unearths a past that Carlene took great pains to hide. Hazel’s investigation leads to a confrontation with Carlene’s killer, who is also fiercely protecting a past … and won’t stop at one murder. 

Maggie King's debut mystery, Murder at the Book Group, came out December 2, 2014 from Simon and Schuster. She contributed the short story, “A Not So Genteel Murder,” to the Sisters in Crime anthology Virginia is for Mysteries. Maggie has worked as a software developer, retail sales manager, and customer service supervisor. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, Glen, and cats, Morris and Olive. Visit her at:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

December Debut Releases

It's the first Thursday in December, which means debut releases. Please take a look and let’s celebrate their success!

S. L. Ellis - Lane Changes (Black Opal Books) December 20, 2014

Cassie Cruise wants her life back as a kick-ass P.I. Trouble is, she has zero credibility since bungling a case on reality TV. After a public tantrum, she slinks off to bury her head in the sandy beaches of Southwest Florida.

Just as she starts over as the owner of The Big Prick Tattoo Shop, a body is discovered in the trunk of her burning car. Cassie's aware there are those who'd get in line for their turn to torch her car. But murder?

You don't have to like her, but you damn well better respect her. And get out of her way—this is one case she intends to solve, with or without an audience.

Maggie King - Murder at the Book Group  (Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books)  December 30, 2014

Nothing can kill a good book group discussion like cold-blooded murder. Especially when the victim is one of the group’s own. Cyanide is the topic du jour for the mystery fanatics of Murder on Tour, but for their poor hostess, Car­lene Arness—who just published her own whodunit—it makes for a surprise ending. One minute, Carlene is speaking animatedly about featuring the poison in her new book. The next, she’s slumped over in a chair, dead from a sip of tea. Did the writer take her research too far? Or did one of the group’s members take a love of true crime to the extreme?
Founding member Hazel Rose is rounding up suspects. Any of her fellow bibliophiles could be the killer. And she soon discovers that almost all of them had a motive. Even Hazel herself, whose ex-husband married Carlene, could be accused of harboring jealousy. The truth is, Carlene wasn’t just hard to read, she was also hard to like—and the scandalous secrets Hazel unearths would make Carlene’s idol, Agatha Christie, turn over in her grave.